GBM Blog

Nuclear techniques are helping the Maasai in Kenya improve their livelihoods

September 2, 2011 - 10:05AM
Published by Edward Wageni

On a dusty, dry patch of land in south-east Kenya a lone Maasai man admires thriving fruit and vegetables on a plot of land. Mangoes, papayas and spinach flourish under the searing heat of the African sun. It is a rare sight here in Ng'atataek on the Tanzanian border, an arid region where rainfall is scarce and the little water available is usually reserved for the livestock.

This unusual spectacle is the result of a project which is a part of an on-going campaign initiated by the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya to improve the health and livelihoods of the Maasai people. They are by tradition pastoralists who depend on their livestock as a source of income and food. However, due to increasing populations and land scarcity, this method of farming is no longer sustainable and they must diversify. The campaign is encouraging them to move away from rearing animals and instead harvest crops.

This Maasai project is part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Technical Cooperation programme, financed by the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), to promote the use drip irrigation for high-value crops. Lee Heng, a water specialist from IAEA who manages the project, highlights that one of the major issues in agriculture is inefficient irrigation practices. Only half of the freshwater that is used is used efficiently.

The water used in this drip irrigation, which comes from a newly made borehole, is applied in droplets near the plant’s root zone through small tubes. It is the most efficient form of irrigation, using up to 70 percent less water than other techniques, and can improve crop yields threefold. This simple, low-cost set-up avoids over-watering, which can damage both the soil and the crops. The system enables farmers to grow healthy crops using very little water and under extreme dry conditions.This huge improvement in efficiency is proving immeasurably important in the wider scheme of things. “As water becomes more and more scarce and growing populations demand more food”, Lee states, “it’s of paramount importance that we manage agricultural water better to produce more crops for every drop of water we use in both rain fed and irrigated agriculture,”

Here is a video of our work with the Maasai. In the project we have been partnering with AMREF using nuclear technology in the Kajiado constituency. GBM staff, David Mathenge and Margaret Meleyian are featured in the video.

Back in Maasai land, Alex Ntasikoi, who has been trained by KARI in drip irrigation methodology, shows other members of his community how the system works. “We’ve really seen the benefits of drip irrigation,” he says. “The system is cheap and requires little water, which is very important in our region because we have so little of it. Also, the plants get less disease because the water goes into the roots and not on the leaves,” he says.

But the real beneficiaries of this project are the Maasai women. The men can be away for up to a year in pursuit of grazing land for their livestock, leaving the women and children alone to fend for themselves.“Drip irrigation is a new technology for us and since it’s been introduced we can plant our own vegetables and do not have to depend on livestock alone,” says Mary Kashu, a Maasai woman. “We can improve our children’s nutrition and raise some income and we can use the money to pay school fees and to maintain the pump to get more water from the borehole.”

The IAEA is currently implementing this small-scale irrigation project in 19 countries in Africa. The IAEA’s Lee Heng says, “We hope that this project will empower the farmers to farm in an efficient, productive and sustainable manner.